Sunday, November 30, 2008

Musings from "The Rock": Exploring Newfoundland, Part 1

Dusk in Wesleyville, Newfoundland

"Do not go where the path  may lead, go instead where there is no path and leave a trail."~George Eliot

My second major journey of 2008 was to Newfoundland in September. My good friend Robert and I flew to Gander and spent the next two weeks exploring a large part of the northern portion of the province.

It was through the generosity of my Oakville, Ontario dealer Abbozzo Gallery and David Blackwood,  that I was able to travel to Newfoundland. David is Canada's most celebrated printmaker. His etchings and paintings positively glow with an almost ethereal light amidst a palette of warms and cools. You can click on David's name above to view his website. His work is exquisite in its depiction of the unique geography and his own personal connection with his home province of Newfoundland. I strongly encourage you to look at his work. You will not forget it.

My intent with traveling to Newfoundland was to shoot reference for an exhibition of paintings to take place in the fall of 2009 in Oakville at Abbozzo Gallery. We spent a total of two weeks in Newfoundland, covering huge distances and meeting many wonderful and unforgettable people along the way.

The road to Wesleyville

Every time someone who has visited Newfoundland speaks of it they almost become wistful, as though it holds a special place within their heart. I understand why that is now. The land seems to exist between two is so unique that Robert and I often felt as though we were in a different reality entirely. The province is huge, and we were under no illusions that we could breeze around the province within two weeks. Thus we stuck to the top half of the province and explored the northeastern section, over to Gros Morne National Park, up to Twillingate and Fogo Island in the north and then back to our home base of Wesleyville.

Sunset over Wesleyville 

The atmosphere is so acutely pure and unblemished in Newfoundland. Between the fresh air off of the taiga in Alaska and the clear skies of Newfoundland my lungs enjoyed a respite this year from the often smoggy air of Southwestern Ontario where I live. 

A view of Bennett's High Island off in the distance

Wesleyville is on the north eastern shores of Newfoundland and is a sweet little hamlet with about 1,500 residents in the summertime. David visits and works from time to time at the studio and a raft of other artists, writers and creative folk have darkened its doors over the years. I was quite honored to sign the little piece of illustration board that so many others had signed before me. Everyone from Farley Mowat to Rex Murphy had visited before us. We settled in quickly and set out first thing the next morning to explore Cape Freels, a beautiful area up the coast from Wesleyville.

 We really noticed the wind while in Newfoundland...throughout the day we were almost blown off of our feet periodically as we climbed hills and traversed Gros Morne and Fogo Island. When we visited Cape Freels the gales swept in off the water and made our walk a challenge. We saw little fishing boats out on the bay fishing for cod, the fishermen in yellow rain gear bouncing amid the sprays of water. They waved to us. It was the beginning of experiencing the terrific warmth of the people who call Newfoundland home. 

An abandoned lobster trap at Cape Freels

Kittiwakes searched for food ahead of us as we walked along the shores of the cape.

One of the many signs in Newfoundland that were bare...the atmosphere had long since obscured what had been written on it. This further  made me feel as though I was in another land altogether off the map.

"The Rock" in all of its splendor...gales, ocean, rolling crests of earth that seemed themselves to have been shaped by the very gusts coming in off of the water.

We came upon this little cemetery out at the end of the cape. The stones were propped up with pieces of wood to ballast them against the elements that continually push upon the land. We noticed that many of the people who had passed on died very young. Life would have been extremely difficult in times past and the mortality rate was very high. I remember seeing these stones and thinking that it was a beautiful final resting place for these people who had died so very long ago.

I loved the pattern of the blowing sand across the beach ahead of us. It was quite cold but we loved every moment of it.

The colour of the water struck me particularly on this day. It was almost purple, perhaps due to organic matter being churned up but I was not sure. Regardless, it had a beautiful weight to it, as though it was pushing against the sky with its inky hue.

I am drawn to photographing signs of places I pass through. I think that they reveal some of the nature of the place...a window into a bit of its personality perhaps. I liked the improvised "o" in this sign in Pound Cove. 

On our way back to Wesleyville from Cape Freels we stopped in Newtown, a cute little town with a gorgeous church defining its skyline. It was pretty quiet everywhere that we went in Newfoundland. People were out working and the activity of the summer months had died down substantially. Subsequently we really enjoyed the quiet, fresh air, smiles and waves of passersby and pristine views at every turn. 

Although I am a figurative artist and I usually paint people in my work, I did not want that to dictate what I would paint for this show. Thus I let myself be inspired by what I encountered, be it a beach, a berry picker by the road or the setting sun behind darkened hills that would end up on my canvases. 

A solitary little boat by the inlet on the way into Newtown. I loved the ochre colour of the fading grasses on the wane from the summer months.

You can see the beautiful church in Newtown behind this intriguing building built on this rock jutting out of the water. It seemed ready to collapse at any moment. 

A sweet little Newfoundlander puppy in Newtown. 

At the end of our first couple of days in Newfoundland Robert and I tried to absorb all of the unique character of this truly special part of Canada. I surge of patriotism for a place I was fortunate enough to call home welled up in me and I realized how lucky I was to be in a place of such simple beauty, such kindness offered whenever required, such endlessly changing skies and a quietness that helps stress melt away.  Paradoxically I was inspired and charged with an energy to get out and snap pictures of everything I saw. I took over 900 pictures in two weeks, and of those I will distill my reference down to about 15 paintings of very special places and people I met along the way. I will write more in the next "chapter" of my travels in Newfoundland soon. 

"Life is either a daring adventure or nothing."~Helen Keller

Here is some information on my solo exhibition in November 2009. If you have any questions please contact Abbozzo Gallery. You can see a selection of writings about these paintings on my other blog, here.
Newfoundland Portraits
November 5-22nd, 2009
Abbozzo Gallery, Oakville, Ontario
Opening Reception November 6th, 7-10pm

Have a wonderful day and take good care,


Wednesday, November 19, 2008

Climbing Gulkana Glacier and 'Business As Usual' in Alaska

"In wisdom gathered over time I have found that every experience is a form of exploration." 
~Ansel Adams

Two days before I left Alaska Ed, Lisa, Andy, Trevor and I headed to McClaren summit, the highest elevation that you can access by vehicle in the entire state. Ed , Lisa and Andy were heading out on a 50 mile packraft and hiking trip for the weekend. I had to leave Fairbanks on Sunday and thus Trevor and I drove them to their drop-off point at McClaren summit. Then we hiked on Gulkana Glacier on our way back to Fairbanks.

We left Fairbanks at the end of the day on Friday and stopped for pizza in Delta Junction I believe. There were lots of moose on the road and Andy and Lisa, driving separately almost hit one. Hunting season began that weekend so there were a few hunters toting rifles that we spotted along the road. As usual I was just in awe of the landscape and how much it changes with the light and time of day. My circadian clock was all askew for my two weeks in Alaska as it tried to adjust to the sun being up at 5:30am and not setting until around midnight. Ed and Trevor taught me about the difference between buttes and tors and we debated what exactly a "traverse" entailed and if packrafting could be included within the context of a traverse.

A part of the Alaska Range in the fading light.

The abrupt contrast in light and dark with the sunsets in the north was beautiful.

After dinner we headed for our camp, another 2 hours southwest of Fairbanks. The sun was down when we set up camp in the pitch black. It was quite disorienting as I had no idea what sort of landscape was around us...the most precious thing you can have when it gets that dark is your is invaluable. The next morning we packed up and Trevor and I headed off towards Gulkana Glacier for the day while Ed, Andy and Lisa began their traverse. I joked with Ed throughout my time in Alaska that his amazing trips through mountains and across the tundra every week were "Business As Usual" for him and his friends. I was swept up for a time in this world where packrafting and scaling mountains is as second nature as breathing and I was hooked on it all immediately.

The view that greeted us when we awoke the next morning

We set off and Trevor and I grabbed some coffee at a roadside diner on our way to the glacier. The bends in the road kept revealing even more glorious was like a postcard rack that you spin and each time it stops a new card is in front of you.  I drank a lot of black coffee in Alaska...except when I was in Fairbanks where I could find some soy milk. Needless to say with some caffeine running through our veins we pushed off towards the glacier.

On our way to Gulkana after dropping Ed, Lisa and Andy off for their traverse.

As we drove along I looked around and could not believe the clarity, the sharpness of beauty in the smells, sights and sounds of everything around us. Plus, blaring and singing along to Coldplay made it even better.

We arrived at the glacier around 10am and drove as far as we could along this road towards the glacier before leaving the car and continuing on foot. We only saw two other people on our hike, which took about 7 hours there and back with time spent on the glacier. We came across a rather precarious bridge with wooden slats that crossed a small but swiftly moving glacial stream. It reminded me a little bit of the bridge in Indiana Jones And The Temple Of Doom, complete with missing wooden slats.  

Gulkana Glacier is the most studied glacier in Alaska. There was a lot of monitoring equipment that we passed on our way up. Trevor told me about the features of the glacier, the rocks it leaves in its wake as it recedes and all sorts of glacial terminology that I cannot recall. Needless to say it was very impressive to see a sea of boulders that we had to negotiate on our way up to where the ice began. 

As we climbed Trevor informed me that we were indeed on ice but it was covered in silt and rocks but sure enough our footing became rather unstable periodically as we would step on ice that had a thin layer of soil on it, disguising how slippery it was. 

Trevor and I continued our way up the seemingly endless hills of rocks and boulders

As we made it to the ice and started to climb the glacier proper the temperature fell about ten degrees. The ice was like tiny pebbles...almost gravelly. There were small crevasses with beautiful blue ice visible as you peered into them. There were also lots of streams running past us too, clear little highways of water disappearing into crevasses or intimidating looking holes in the ice.

One of the many small streams flowing down the glacier

We finally reached a good point to survey the view around us. Trevor continued up a little further after donning his crampons. It was a wonderful feeling being up there, feeling at once so large and so small, a part of something large and yet quite inconsequential at the same time...a very humbling experience. I wanted to freeze time and relish the place and space around me but we knew that it would take a good couple of hours to get back down so we began our descent after about an hour of meandering around and taking some photos.

Trevor climbing a little farther up the glacier

An unbelievable view down the glacier and into the valley below

We came across this obliterated snowmobile on our way down the glacier. We didn't find anyone there so hopefully they were either unhurt from the crash or had been taken to receive treatment for their injuries. It was rather spooky to find this abandoned hull of a machine way up on the glacier though. Periodically we would hear large chunks of ice split and break off, sending crashes reverberating below our feet and in our ears. 

Here were some small crevasses that intimidated me nonetheless!!

I loved the cool and warm tones that the sunlight cast upon the ice.

That tiny dot up behind me is Trevor farther up the glacier

This is my favorite shot from the whole day. It seems to take the entire world in...I wanted so badly to slide down the stream but who knows where I would have ended up?

It took us almost three hours to get back to Trevor's trusty little Subaru. What an unreal day. I remember him asking me at the start of the day if I wanted to drive around the Interior looking at the mountains or climb a glacier? Needless to say it didn't take me long to decide! We didn't get to the top of the glacier that day but I felt as though I had reached the summit. I had never done anything like that before...and cannot wait to go again to see so much more of the endless possibilities that await in the North. Again, having someone as amazing as Trevor there made the experience even more invaluable. He is an easygoing guy and I'm pretty nervous sometimes so his laid back attitude helped me enjoy the experience without worrying about anything. Great friends are worth more than gold.

The view as we drive away from Gulkana

That was my last day in Alaska before I flew back to Ontario. Now back in my studio I fought a good bout of melancholia after leaving the 49th state. But work must be done and I am back at the easel with renewed vigor now. Paintings are being produced and the energy behind them is fueled from these experiences in Alaska and Newfoundland the following month. 

I intend to return as soon as I can to Alaska, to reunite with my good friends as much as any snow capped vista, to celebrate the best gifts of all: health, happiness and friends to share it all with. What more could one want in this life?

Bones sinking like stones
all that we fall for
Homes places we've grown
all of us are done for

And we live in a beautiful world
(yeah we do yeah we do)
We live in a beautiful world
We live in a beautiful world

~"Don't Panic", Coldplay

Saturday, November 15, 2008

Sharing What You Love To Do

Gros Morne National Park, Newfoundland

The only thing stopping us from achieving our dreams is the limits that we place upon ourselves. 

I recently spoke at Nelson High School, the same high school that I graduated from in 1993. My friend Christina asked me to speak for one of her applied English classes. She wanted me to talk about my adventures in Alaska as well as about being a working artist. I was thrilled to speak about something that is so special to me. I did not even bring notes as I just knew that the talk would take shape within the moment.

I took some paintings with me as well as photos of my trip to Alaska this past summer. Christina had the kids think of some questions for me before the talk, which worked well because they were rather shy about asking questions when I was there.

I spoke for twenty minutes but it felt like five. The time flew by and I think that I spoke too quickly but the feeling of sharing with others a little bit about what I do and perhaps inspiring them to think of a creative vocation for their future was amazing! They were curious about how I worked, how traveling has affected my art, how much my paintings sell for and the inspiration for the paintings themselves. I emphasized how I felt that no matter what they did with their lives, that whatever they wanted to do was within their reach. It was great to see that a couple of the kids there wanted to pursue careers as artists. I did not glorify it and said that it really has its difficult times, but that is the case with anything I suppose.

I was thrilled to learn that the principal at Nelson heard about my talk and wished that more kids would have been able to attend the talk. I offered to return with a longer talk, more photos and more paintings if they wished. I really love speaking about working as an artist and sharing some of what I do with those pondering a similarly creative choice of vocation. Perhaps other opportunities will arise to do this.

If even one member of the class chooses a path that they previously had second guessed, I will be overjoyed. We are our own strongest critics, and the power of self-sabotage through what-if thinking and negative self-talk can be overwhelming; Fear can control us and often does. However, if we accept that uncertainty and embrace that anxiety we can overcome it. To choose the path less trodden is surely the most gratifying. I would not want to do anything else with this "one wild and precious life" as Mary Oliver so beautifully calls it.

"I simply do not distinguish between work and play."
~Mary Oliver

The Scottish Highlands from a trip there in a few years ago.

Monday, November 3, 2008

Dreaming In Denali

Polychrome lookout in Denali National Park

The mountains are calling and I must go.
~John Muir

My second week in Alaska brought me to Denali National Park. I set aside time to explore the park and was so excited to have a little solo adventure.

 I rented a car in Fairbanks and headed down the George Parks Highway to to Denali, 120 miles away. It was a wonderful drive with mountain tops visible in the distance. The closest town to Denali National Park is Healy, a little town that I wish I had had more time to explore. I stayed a total of three days in the area of Denali, touring the park and poking around. Theresa, my host at my bed and breakfast, was a great source of information and had a warmth and great hospitality that made my stay even more enjoyable. 

For two days I toured the park, mostly by a bus that takes you through the centre of the park, as far as Wonder Lake, 13 hours into the heart of the park. Denali is a very special place, a place that takes pride in leaving the wilderness to itself, all 6 million acres of it. There is only one road into the park, and this is to avoid disturbing the environment. You can hike and camp in the park, jumping on and off the big green buses that snake their way along the narrow gravel road.

The colours were out in full force and I can honestly say that they intensified from one day to the next.

I saw quite a bit of wildlife in the two days I spent in the park. Snow ptarmigan and snow hare, a coyote, a wolf, three grizzly bears, Dall sheep and two moose were beautiful to see. There were many "Pro Phos" (Professional Photographers) there with huge lenses and camouflage-wear on, ready to quickly set up their tripods at a moment's notice. We could always tell when a moose was around as there would be a gaggle of these Pro Phos huddled by the road trying to catch a glimpse of moose or anything with four legs.

I took the bus as far as Eielson Visitor Center in the heart of the park. It was a full day of driving but I wanted to see as much as possible. The weather was quite different from one day to the next and it created wonderfully different effects on the landscape.
Polychrome Lookout

The sign describing Eielson's Visitor Center's unique structure and environmentally responsible philosophy.

Eielson Visitor Center and lookout was the terminus of my path into the park on both days. It reminded me of Rivendell from The Lord Of The Rings. It seemed to be carved out of the mountain and in reality, it was. It makes as small a human footprint as possible which was wonderful to learn about. 

Denali, or Mount McKinley was not visible either day that I was in the park. It is so large that it is only visible maybe 10% of the time. I believe that Chris McCandless, when he was at Bus 142, only saw Denali once or twice. I only caught sight of Denali once in two weeks in Alaska, on the way back from The Stampede Trail with Ed heading up the George Parks Highway to Fairbanks. I could discern its purple spires above the clouds for about five minutes, and then it was gone. 

The view towards Mt. McKinley at Eielson 

Eielson, carved out of the side of the mountains.
A quote from John Muir, intrepid climber, explorer and naturalist.

We stopped at about four locations on our way into and out of the park. The Teklanika campground and lookout, Polychrome, Eielson and Toklat river lookouts were all places to try to take in as much of the beauty around me as possible. 

The Toklat River

I love how the rivers braid and wind their way through the valleys
The colours were so muted as to seem almost monochromatic.

Bus on the road shown for scale

The second day was just as unique as the first due to the changing colours and new light and weather. J.J. the bus driver was a wealth of information about the park. He talked about the animals and their habits and habitats, the history of the park as well as tips for exploring on foot and and other guidelines to help keep our experience safe and as full as possible.

As with other times in Alaska, in Denali National Park I felt as though I was peering into something special, something protected and almost totally undisturbed. I was so happy to know that the animals within its boundaries were safe to live their lives as they should be lived, without the fear of the bullet or the knife.

The Teklanika River

 This river is the one that trapped Chris about 16 miles downstream. I thought about that as I watched a much calmer river here. It was still frigid though and we spotted a grizzly bear mother and her cub by the water's edge.

The beautiful colours of Denali


I will always remember the undisturbed vistas of Denali. It is a place that everyone should visit. The colours were like a beautiful quilt upon the landscape, a joy to behold. I knew that these brilliant hues were ephemeral, like everything in life, they would fade and the cycle would begin again next year. That is the beautiful part about the world we live in; that history invariably repeats itself. The bud will bloom once again, as surely as the sun rises each morning.

I returned to Healy and spent the next day exploring around and hiring the helicopter to take me back to Bus 142. I felt renewed from being in Denali, charged creatively as a spring coiled and ready to leap into action. 

Goofing around with the camera at my bed and breakfast

Vincent, Theresa's son, working on his truck in Healy

Sitting on the mountainside at Polychrome and taking it all in, I thought about how really, truly, what we do with our lives and the precious little time we have on this earth is so important. To squander time, money, talent and love is something to fight against and rise above. Share it, make the most of it, grasp it and cherish it. As Emily Dickinson so wisely penned "dwell in possibility". 

"Hope is the thing with feathers
that perches in the soul.
And sings the tune
Without the words
and never stops at all."
~Emily Dickinson